John Shawcross, the eminent Miltonist and Donne scholar, has just died. He's the third prominent Miltonist I've known who has died in the past two years. As with the previous (and more untimely) deaths of Al Labriola and Rich DuRocher, the Milton and Donne lists I subscribe to have lit up with tributes and remembrances, all of them testifying to the deceased's extraordinary generosity.
With Shawcross, the stories all sound like my own: I met him on a plane en route to my first academic conference ever. He was the one who struck up conversation and drew me out about my dissertation, and to whom I confessed my nervousness. At the conference he introduced me around and checked up on me periodically, and when I finally delivered my paper (in the last time slot, on the last day, to a packed room), he watched me intently, smiling with great satisfaction as I hit my major claims and then fielded difficult questions. At every subsequent conference that we both attended, he went out of his way to say hello, often when I hadn't noticed him myself: he'd cross a crowded hotel lobby, briefly excusing himself from whomever he was talking to, and for two or three minutes give me the impression that I was the person he most wanted to see.
Even before his death, I'd heard dozens of stories like mine: John made sure to meet and know everyone, but especially graduate students, contingent faculty, foreign scholars, and those otherwise regarded as on the margins of the profession. To meet him even once was to feel that he was a friend.
We like to mystify and cordon off intellectual brilliance, believing that each stage of academic success means gaining entry to a series of increasingly exclusive clubs. John Shawcross's life and career are reminders that the best minds are the most open and the most inclusive.
Rest in peace.